Dwindling depth at tackle

Tennessee's reputation as a 4-3 defensive team is in jeopardy. The way things are going, the Vols soon may be down to one healthy tackle, forcing them to play a 3-4.

OK, maybe the situation isn't quite that dire ... but it's pretty dire.

Consider:

Chase Nelson suffered a preseason knee injury that cost him the entire 2008 season. Walter Fisher suffered a turf-toe injury two weeks ago that limited him to a few ill-fated snaps last weekend vs. Alabama. Dan Williams suffered an ankle injury late in the Tide game and did not return to action.

If Fisher and Williams can't play Saturday night at South Carolina, Tennessee's tackle corps will consist of first-teamer Demonte Bolden, plus third-teamers Victor Thomas and Donald Langley, along with fourth-teamer Andre Mathis.

"We've got two guys we're trying to get well as much as we can," Vol tackles coach Dan Brooks said this week. "J.R. (Fisher) tried last week but he just couldn't go very much. We're trying to get him well, trying to get Dan Williams well."

Williams was injured when he was blocked below the waist by an Alabama offensive lineman. This maneuver, known as a chop block, is illegal.

"It's a shame to lose a guy on a block like that," Brooks noted, "but it happens in football."

To their credit, Fisher and Williams are making every effort to get healthy enough to play vs. the Gamecocks.

"They're doing everything they can," Brooks said. "They're in the training room as much as they can be to get themselves well. As always, those young guys (Mathis, Thomas, Langley) have got to step up and help us."

Making matters worse, Mathis got a little dinged up at the end of the Bama game.

"Andre did well last week," Brooks conceded, "and then he got hurt, too."

Given the dwindling depth at tackle, you wonder: Is playing more 3-4 an option?

"Not really," Brooks said. "We play the 3 every game but it's a situation defense (based on) personnel substitution and that sort of thing. We base out of the 4-3 and we'll continue to do that."

While extensive use of the 3-4 is not a viable option, moving an end to tackle is. Robert Ayers, a 6-3, 275-pound senior, filled in at tackle against Bama and will do so again vs. South Carolina.

"He's played in there some all year long," Brooks said. "He's ready to do that. Robert's willing to help the team ... whatever he can do to help. He played in there some last week and did well."

With the troops reduced to Bolden, two third-teamers, a fourth-teamer and a transplanted end, Tennessee's depth at tackle may be the thinnest it has been during Brooks' 15-year tenure with the Vols.

"It probably is," he said. "It's a tough position because you get guys hurt and banged up. When you lose a player like Fisher – I think he played six or eight plays (vs. Bama) – then you lose Dan late, then you get Andre hurt a little bit, it makes it tough."

Even if Williams and Fisher are able to go vs. South Carolina, they probably will play considerably fewer snaps than usual. That means Brooks will have to substitute early and often.

"It's by committee," he said.


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